Filippo Grandi was clearly prepared for his new mission. Defending and preserving the rights and interests of Palestinian refugees. As deputy commissioner, the Italian born Grandi was very much versed in the workings of the UN, familiar with his international and local staffs, understood the politics and politicians of the Middle East and knew exactly about the financial health of this international agency.
But despite all the preparedness, Grandi was clearly shocked as to what awaited him in Jordan when he made his virgin tour of the region as commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Grandi visited some of two hundred families living just outside the Baka'a refugee camp in Jordan. Grandi called their situation "appalling."
Because they are outside the camp, these registered refugees have not benefited from the services provided to refugees living in the registered camp area especially in the are of sanitation or shelter repairs. The new Commissioner General ordered immediately to extend the sanitation service to include these 200 families but was clearly at loss as to how to deal with these families other problems. "Jordan is a victim of its own success," Grandi said in reference to the fact that the stability of Jordan has meant that most contributions coming to Palestinian refugees are earmarked to Gaza or the West Bank or Lebanon, but not to Jordan. The new commissioner said that he plans to set up a special fund which he hopes he can raise the needed funds for that will focus on pockets of poverty for refugees in Jordan and Syria.
For months later in '09 and early in '10, Filippo, as he is known by his colleagues, was in the dark whether he will or will not be named the new commissioner to fill in the position of Karen AbuZayd. All indications were pointing out that he will be chosen as the leader of the UN humanitarian organization, but the delay in announcing the official decision from New York took for ever. In November Mr. Grandi's while still officially the deputy commissioner of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency left the region on vacation. He packed his bag and left not knowing whether he will come back or not.
The decision took so long that rumors started to circulate including those questioning the qualification of Grandi. The delay was so long that the secretary general was forced to ask the outgoing commissioner to stay on for three more weeks in January.
While unhappy with the delay, Grandi tried to reflect on what he saw as the silver lining in it. The Secretary General had vowed to scrutinize all appointments and in the end his decision means that I succeeded a rigorous process, Grandi told me during an extensive interview in UNRWA's Jerusalem office.
Soon after the announcement in January, the new commissioner made a visit to Egypt, Jordan and Gaza.
In Egypt Grandi met with Egyptian officials as well as the Arab League Secretary General. Egypt is the current head of the UNRWA advisory commission. Egypt's ambassador to Jordan chairs this position while the Saudi Ambassador is his deputy . The two will rotate in the next meeting of the advisory commission.
According to Grandi Amr Mousa was very supportive to the work of UNRWA and repeated the commitment of Arabs to the UN agency caring for Palestinians. Grandi says that Arab support for Palestinian refugees through UNRWA has dramatically increased in recent years. In 2009, the Arab contribution to UNRWA's overall income (General Fund, emergency appeals and construction projects) rose exceptionally to 10%, thanks mainly to a good response to the Agency's Gaza appeals, in particular a generous $34 million donation by the Amir of Kuwait and a number of donations by non-governmental humanitarian establishments such as the Saudi Committee for the Support of the Palestinian People and the UAE Red Crescent. Saudi Arabia also generously pledged $25 million towards the reconstruction of Nahr El Bared Camp in Lebanon.
The Arab League Ministerial Council reconfirmed in 2009 the need to increase general support to UNRWA. This was a recall of earlier decisions, first made in 1987, calling on members to increase their contributions to a level of 7.8% of UNRWA's budget. Donor contributions to the General Fund in 2009 were $452 million. $7 million of that was provided by Arab donors (1.5%).
Grandi is aware of the reason for Arab reluctance in supporting UNRWA, namely that Arabs feel that the solution of the refugee issue is allowing them to return and therefore western countries (which many countries hold responsible for the prolongation of this issue) should bear the brunt of the budget of UNRWA.
Nevertheless, Amr Mousa, who Grandi feels is totally supportive of UNRWA's work invited Filippo Grandi to the next Arab summit to be held in Libya in March so that he can lobby personally senior officials and Arab heads of state. The previous Commissioner attended the last summit in Doha, Qatar but that produced little change in Arab support for the general fund.
The situation in Gaza was and will continue to be the main source of Grandi's attention. The new commissioner was quoted in Al Quds daily as saying that the rights of refugees are violated every day. When asked to detail he pointed out that the siege on Gaza is " collective punishment" and he concluded that all Gazans and not just the refugees are being denied their right of a normal life. "The closure is a violation of human rights. Not allowing Gazans access to goods that sustain life and allow them to pursue normal life is therefore a clear violation," he said. Grandi's number one priority from the Israelis is permission to allow building material in order to start the process of rebuilding homes and shelters that were destroyed in the Israeli war on Gaza.
For the first time, Israel gave the United Nations $10 million dollars to compensate losses as a result of the Israeli attacks, mostly for the destruction of medicines when UNRWA's warehouses were hit. Grandi noted that receiving this amount doesn't signify Israeli admission of responsibility nor does it end the UN's demand for accountability from the Israelis. "The UN has repeatedly demanded compensation every time the Israelis have caused loss of life or goods and the Secretary General has and continues to insist on accountability," he said.
When asked if his tough position with the Israelis will hurt UNRWA's need for cooperation with the Israelis Grandi turned practical. "We negotiate every day with Israelis especially on the need to import materials into Gaza and the problem of movement of our staff between the West Bank and Jerusalem.," he said. But Grandi insists that he is committed to 'objectivity' in his direct talks with the Israelis.
While the Israelis have not budged much with the UN agency, the Lebanese apparently have changed a lot in recent years. "For decades, the Lebanese have refused to allow us to talk about the need to improve conditions in the refugee camps for fear that this was contribute to tawteen" said Grandi a reference to the fear of Lebanese that refugees will become citizens of Lebanon. But while the Lebanese have opened up on improving camp conditions in Ein al Hilweh and Burj al Barajneh and other camps, they still have limited the ability of Palestinian refugees much access to employment.
The rebuilding of the Nahr al Bared refugee camp is finally back on track after much delays the latest of which was worry that the new buildings might ruin some archaeological finds.
Grandi whose previous post was deputy commissioner general pointed proudly to the results of the micro enterprise work that UNRWA has initiated. By the end of 2009, the programme had financed 194,000 loans worth USD 218.50 million. By the end of 2010 it will have financed more than a quarter of a billion dollars in microfinance loans. Grandi boasted that 2009 was a year of record outreach when the programme financed 28,300 loans worth US$37 million.
As he settles in his office in Jerusalem, where he plans to spend most of his time (unlike his predecessor who made Gaza her home) Grandi has yet to think of any signature programs. He is excited about the need to modernize the UN agency so as to provide better quality relief in accordance to excellent standards. He has high hopes of bringing back high level of education to refugees with the introduction of IT into schools including the additions of thousands of lap tops to refugee children.
But to reach those goals Grandi will not to do a lot more fund raising. A senior western Arabist diplomat will lead UNRWA's attempts to raise money in the Arab world. Grandi spoke warmly of President Abbas, Prime Minister Fayyad and International development minister Ali Jirbawi and their support to UNRWA's fund raising demands despite their own needs to run the Palestinian Authority.
If Grandi hopes not to dip into emergency or earmarked funds, he will need all the help he can get to cover the over one hundred million dollars in deficit of the general fund. He will need some of this money to improve conditions of UNRWA's thousands of local staff who have been protesting their pay scale for months. Local staff have temporarily suspended their protests after small improvements were accomplished. Grandi sympathizes with his local staff and admits that their salaries are not comparable with other UN agencies. "they are comparable to public sector jobs in local governments where they are working," he said. Grandi admits that salaries dipped below even comparable government jobs, but that with recent adjustments they are equal or higher than any comparable public service job, he insists. He called a recent agreement with Jordan, West Bank, and Gaza staff a "good agreement." And he hopes that if funds are available that the UN agency will try to improve their conditions even better.
As Grandi rounds up the remaining visits to Syria and Lebanon, Fillipo Grandi was jubilant. "I am truly pleased with the response I felt from my staff. The meetings I gave had were good," he said.
While day to day rights and interests of Palestinian refugees was clearly the focus of the new commissioner, he understands that the agency he now heads will not exist once the Palestinian cause is resolved. The Palestinian Authority's efforts for statehood led by prime Minister Salam Fayyad will not render the UN agency redundant according to Grandi. So long as the refugee issues is not resolved our work will continue. The new commissioner general pointed out that what is needed is not simply the resolution of the refugees who fled their West Bank homes in 1967 with the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. There are many refugees from the 1948 war and some who were refugees twice or more. Our job will end when the refugee problem, I mean the refugee issue is resolved. Until then we have our work cut out for us, he said.